Last Light

It was 11:15 when the professor shuffled into class, wheezing with every step. The teaching assistant followed at a respectful distance, ready to step forward should he lose his balance. He disliked having them tail him so closely; he was perfectly capable of walking to his podium, even though he needed to occasionally support himself by leaning on the wall… but only occasionally, no need of a cane, he thought to himself. Independence was no small mercy at ninety-seven.

He heard the class groan collectively when the bell rang and the assistant latched the door behind her. It was a groan that he had heard far too often in his long career for it to have any effect on him. He set out the book on the podium, opened the page he needed to, and began to read over the murmur within his head.

Occasionally he would look up and see a student staring intently at his desk, his face bathed in the glow of a telephone. The professor would then bang the wooden podium loudly, startling the students into attention, and point at the errant one with his right hand – his good hand, unaffected by the bouts of rheumatism that were becoming increasingly recurrent. The telephone would be ordinarily be collected by the assistant professor – ordinarily – and passed on into the recesses of the college bureaucracy, though he had a suspicion that the younger professor would often return it to the student. But the teaching assistant – the girl from fifth year whose name he could never remember, she could be compelled to giving it to him.

“Why don’t you go to the back of the classroom and see if anyone is distracting the class?” he asked her. He knew only a fraction of the students were paying attention, if at all – and he was too weary to keep tabs on them all.

The class began to murmur again, needlessly. He banged the podium twice until they fell silent, and then picked up from where he had left off. They did not interrupt him again – or so he believed, he could no longer discern much because of the ringing in his ears.

He completed the order [1] and was about to begin teaching the next one when he saw that one of the students – someone on the front bench – had her hand up. “Yes?” he asked her.

She said something incomprehensible, then repeated it a little more loudly, until he caught what rule she was referring to. He went on to explain the section, ignoring the restlessness of the class, and the bell – until she came up to him.

“Actually, sir,” she said very loudly – as though he were deaf – “all I wanted to know was why persons of unsound mind are not covered by this rule, while minors are. The entire order makes no distinction between them otherwise.”

He looked sadly at her expectant face. He had never thought about this, not in his years as a public prosecutor, nor in his years teaching. He tried to smile at her to hide his helplessness. “I do not know,” he said, simply, “the commentaries say nothing about it.”

She beamed at him a little too understandingly.

***

He skipped lunch that day, as he did on most other days. He did not feel the need to eat in the afternoons any longer – often a banana or a packet of curd was enough, and all he could afford. He was in his room at 2:00, and began waiting for the students who came in.

They rarely consulted him about projects anymore, but he did not want to give the university any cause for complaint.

He sat and watched the clock for a while, dozing off briefly before jerking awake with an imaginary knock at the door. He satisfied himself that there was no one before going to the stand to read the newspapers. It was a depressing habit, but one he had dutifully carried out for the past twenty years. It had reached obsessive levels of late, when he delayed going home just long enough to reach before the sun set. The only company he had these days, apart from his own thoughts, was that of the maid and the cook, and he knew that that was no company at all.

“Sir?” a  shrill voice interrupted him. He turned to find the same student standing there beside him. She was one of the few people who was still shorter than him, and her round face and big eyes contributed to the impression of girlishness about her.

“Consultation?” he said, more gruffly than he had intended. “Bring the other one also. I don’t want to repeat myself twice.”

She disappeared for a few minutes before returning. “The other person has taken an exemption, sir. I’m the only one with the topic.”

“Ah,” he said, then shuffled over to his room. He stooped to unlock it. “Come, sit.”

She sat down, resting her hands on the glass table, and he noticed her youthful hands, her bitten nails. She was carrying a notebook and pen with her – something many of his students no longer did. He brightened considerably, and asked her for her topic. A case that he was familiar with and loved – one that he had watched his senior argue in his first day at court. He went on telling her, and she took down notes dutifully, and all of a sudden he felt years younger.

But there came a point when he was out of words, and she sat there, pen in hand, and he discerned a hint of impatience in her eyes. “Do you … have any doubts?”

“No, sir,” she smiled at him, and it dawned upon him that she was probably humouring him through this exercise – that she hadn’t really needed his help, having spoken to her seniors, and that perhaps she was here because she wanted a few extra marks in her viva.

“If you have any doubts, you can come to me,” he said, unable to keep the sadness out of his voice. She thanked him again and left, and he suddenly knew that he wouldn’t see her again, except at the viva – that he was long past the age where he was of any help to anyone.

Slowly he rose from his chair, mindful of his back, and locked the room behind him. He was done with project consultations for the day.

*****

[1] A note on the law in this story: the law being taught is the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908. It is divided into one hundred and fifty-eight sections, and the schedule to the Code contains fifty-one Orders, each of which is divided into several rules.

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